The Book of Ruth (NICOT) – Peter H. W. Lau

The Book of Ruth by Peter H. W. Lau
Series: New International Commentaries
Published by Eerdmans on March 7, 2023
Genres: Academic
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“Do not urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people are my people, and your God is my God.”

In this pivotal verse, Ruth’s self-sacrificial declaration of loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi forms the relationship at the heart of the book of Ruth. Peter H. W. Lau’s new commentary explores the human and divine love at the center of the narrative as well as the book’s relevance to Christian theology.

In the latest entry in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Lau upholds the series’ standard of quality. The Book of Ruth includes detailed notes on the translation and pays careful attention to the original Hebrew and the book’s historical context, all the while remaining focused on Ruth’s relevance to Christian readers today. An indispensable resource for pastors, scholars, students, and all readers of Scripture, Lau’s commentary is the perfect companion to one of the most beloved books of the Old Testament.

For nearly fifty years, New International Commentaries have been the evangelical standard for a commentary set. Intended for clergy and biblical scholars, the NIC is an academic commentary that understands that not all of its readers will be fluent in Hebrew or Greek. Instead, the various authors provide their own translations of the text, use transliterated forms of biblical languages, and keep a balance between the academic and the applicational. The result is a versatile series that is beneficial for biblical scholars, but especially helpful to clergy. In my time as a pastor, it has become my first resource for studying any passage.

The first edition of The Book of Ruth was released in 1988 under the authorship of Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., who has also been the general editor of larger New International Commentary on the Old Testament series since 1994. The fact that Hubbard became general editor of the series six years after the publication of his commentary speaks volumes as to how that commentary was received. And, now this second edition, authored by Peter H. W. Lau under Hubbard’s editorship, speaks volumes as to Lau’s quality and expertise. I’m not privy to the details of how new volumes are selected, but I can say that it shows major humility on Hubbard’s behalf to allow his volume to be replaced. Further, it shows Hubbard’s belief that it was time for a new volume and his confidence in Lau’s expertise.

Peter H. W. Lau’s authorship also represents a movement toward diversity in NICOT/NICNT authorship, one that is more reflective of the diversity within the evangelical community. Lau is currently the visiting scholar in Old Testament studies at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia. His PhD in Old Testament is from the University of Sydney in Australia. He is the Old Testament review editor for Themelios, a scholarly journal associated with The Gospel Coalition, and has authored a number of academic books on the Old Testament. He has previously written about the book of Ruth, in particular a volume in the New Studies in Biblical Theology called Unceasing Kindness, and his doctoral dissertation was also on the book of Ruth. When it comes to the book of Ruth’s four short chapters, Lau is the premier scholar of the day.

The Book of Ruth begins with the big picture in 60-page introduction with sections discussing the structure and message of Ruth, its genre, its authorship, and date, purpose, canonicity, theological messages and themes, and connection to the New Testament. From there, Lau breaks down the text in chiastic form, organizing each of the four chapters into 3 sections. This organization alone helps the reader see with clarity the theological intent of the author of Ruth. Where we begin with the end of a family line in Moab, we end with the beginning of a royal line in Israel—and in the middle is the faithful duo of Naomi and Ruth.

I was curious to hear Lau’s take on Ruth’s historicity. Critical scholars will often point to it as an invented history for the Davidic line or at least metaphorical in some respects. A lot of this has to do with the names of Naomi’s family—because c’mon, Naomi’s sons who die are given names that translate to “sickly and “deathly.” Lau makes the argument that these could be given names, as names were often derived from the circumstance of their birth, but is also clear that even if these are names chosen by the narrator to foreshadow their fate, it need not preclude the narrative being historical. In the end, Lau considers the book to be historiographical—it is meant to convey history but is artistically rendered for a specific purpose or point to its audience.

A second area I was curious about was how Lau would exegete Ruth’s immigrant status. Moabites were not just foreigners but enemy foreigners precluded from entering the assembly of Yahweh, even to the tenth generation (Deut 23:3). This would preclude not only Ruth, but her descendent King David(!) from entry. Lau draws a distinction between the letter and intent of the law, but I do wish he had gone into more detail.

From how he structures the book of Ruth to how he exegetes it theologically, Lau offers keen and clear insights in a way that is readable despite being technical and academic. I spent quite some time reading through this cover to cover—not a typical way one approaches commentaries—but I simply found Lau’s writing to be that engaging. It may have even convinced me to preach through the book of Ruth in the near future. I learned a lot from this commentary and while I usually learn a lot when reading technical works like this, it’s usually in the technical details that no layperson cares about. This book helped me pastorally to break down the book of Ruth and its theology in ways that are meaningful and practical for today. It’s a top-notch addition to my favorite commentary series!